In her brilliant new book, Weather, Jenny Offill shares that the late climate scientist Sherwood Rowland commented to his wife one day upon returning home from his lab: “The work is going well, but it looks like it might be the end of the world.”
Let’s turn it around: It looks like the end of the world, but the work might be going well.
Can a pandemic be a promise?
Can a curse be a blessing?
Can an ending be a beginning?
Billions of people around the world have been under lockdown for months. Four and a half million people have been infected with a relentless virus and more than three hundred thousand have died. Economies have collapsed. Supply chains have broken. Hunger is spreading as jobs disappear and financial strain grows. Animals are being killed and food is going to waste as farmers lack distribution networks and safe working conditions. People are dying alone. Families are separated. Friends are isolated. Communities are distanced. Anxiety and depression are rampant. Students struggle to study and teachers to teach. Medical workers are depleted. Researchers are baffled. Neighborhoods are still and roadways are empty.
Ecosystems are healing. Skies are blue. The air is clean. People are out in nature. Families are becoming closer. Friends are reaching out. Communities are organizing. Intimacy is increasing. Many are learning new skills. Home kitchens are bustling with shared meals. Online social clubs are flourishing. Priorities are being recalibrated. Social injustices are being recognized. Scientists are energized. Discoveries are abounding. Schools are innovating. Creativity and collaboration are displacing competition. Music is flowing. Gratitude is showing. Tzedaka is growing. Spirituality is consoling.
This is not the old “glass half empty or half full” insight. That adage risks freezing time. In that moment, it asks, how do you measure your life? We have no such luxury to stand still. Time may feel like it’s moving slowly, but it’s not. It’s moving forward and taking us with it. What we have, for now at least, is the power to direct where we’re going.
We’re not going back, that’s for certain. For better and for worse, the last few months have challenged many of our assumptions and disrupted many of our behaviors. Politics, health, finances, work, mobility, family, love, religion, identity, culture and the climate are all areas of life that we will rethink as we renew. What will we have learned about ourselves and one another from this crisis that we will carry forward into the world as it slowly, and carefully, emerges into a new normal? What will we have learned about ourselves and one another that we will leave behind as we reimagine life not only in the wake of COVID-19 but life in the age of other potential pandemics?
These questions belong not only in boardrooms and faculty lounges, laboratories and legislatures, periodicals and podcasts. They belong around kitchen tables and in family Zoom chats. They belong in our diaries and in our prayers.
The lessons will be many. They must be. But there’s one that, to me, ought to frame them all, a peril that becomes our potential: Our strength can only emerge from a recognition of our shared vulnerability.
The way we do business, the way we build community, the way we love, the way we protect, the way we heal, the way we give, and the way we care for our planet will reward us only when we acknowledge our mutual fragility.
Ancient legends of all kinds have gods and prophets appearing to humanity as beggars to see if we would welcome or reject them. The legend continues, and the choice is ours to make. How do we wish to write the next chapter of the human story here on earth?
For a most heartfelt retelling of the hope embedded in this very moment in time, watch this 4-minute video,
“The Great Realisation”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nw5KQMXDiM4
Tomorrow the reading of the book of Vayikra will end. Its final chapters ask us to choose between blessings and curses. But we know life never so neatly divides. So let us become the moral and spiritual alchemists our time demands. Let us turn curses into blessings, endings into beginnings, pandemics into promises.
Praise me, says God, and I will know that you love me.
Curse me, says God, and I will know that you love me.
Praise me or curse me
And I will know that you love me.
Sing out my graces, says God,
Raise your fist against me and revile, says God.
Sing out graces or revile,
Reviling is also a kind of praise,
But if you sit fenced off in your apathy,
If you sit entrenched in: “I don’t give a damn,” says God,
If you look at the stars and yawn,
If you see suffering and don’t cry out,
If you don’t praise and you don’t revile,
Then I created you in vain, says God.
Sha’ar mourns the recent, senseless deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor. We grieve over the violent, murderous racism that has plagued our country for over 400 years.
אֵל מָלֵא רַחֲמִים, שׁוֹכֵן בַּמְרוֹמִים, הַמְצֵא מְנוּחָה נְכוֹנָה תַחַת כַּנְפֵי הַשְּׁכִינָה בְּמַעֲלוֹת קְדוֹשִׁים וּטְהוֹרִים כְּזֹהַר הָרָקִיעַ מַזְהִירִים, אֶת נִשְׁמוֹת כָּל אַחֵינוּ בְּנֵי אַרְצֵנוּ, אֲנָשִׁים נָשִׁים וְטַף, שֶׁנֶּהֶרְגוּ, שֶׁנִשְׂרְפוּ, שֶׁנִתְלוּ וְנֶחְנְקוּ מִפְּנֵי גִזְעֲנוּת וְשִׂנְאַת חִינָם, בְּגַן עֵדֶן תְהִי מְנוּחָתָם. אָנָּא בַּעַל הָרַחֲמִים, הַסְתִּירֵם בְּסֵתֶר כְּנָפֶיךָ לְעוֹלָמִים וּצְרוֹר בִּצְרוֹר הַחַיִּים אֶת נִשְׁמוֹתֵיהֶם. ה’ הוּא נַחַלָתָם, וְיָנוּחוּ בְשָׁלוֹם עַל מִשְׁכּבוֹתֵיֶהם. וְנֹאמַר אָמֵן.
God full of compassion, dwelling on High,
find perfect rest beneath the sheltering wings of Your Presence,
among the holy and the pure who shine with the light of the heavens,
for the souls of our brothers and sisters, our neighbors,
men, women, and children, who have been
killed, burned, and lynched
because of racism and baseless hate.
May the Garden of Eden be their resting place.
Oh please, Master of compassion,
keep them in the shelter of Your wings for eternity
and bind up their souls in the bond of life.
Adonai is their inheritance; may they rest in peace, and let us say,
But it is not enough to mourn. We’ve done that before. Sadly, we’ll likely mourn again. COVID-19 sheltering requirements impel most of us to restrain our instinct to rush out and protest, embrace, or volunteer right now. But it may provide us with the quiet and time to consider a response with longer-term impact. For many, now may not be the time for immediate, proximate consolation which is painful to accept. But it might be the time to finally make the systemic changes that will more likely prevent us from being back here again.
Think about the world you want to emerge into when this health-crisis is over. What does equality really look like? How does justice truly get implemented? Who has the vision and power to dismantle institutionalized racism in our country that perpetuates unequal access to clean natural resources, healthcare, education, jobs, and housing? How will you vote? How will you spend your money in the service of healing the chronic disease of hatred from whose symptoms none of us are immune? Injustice hurts more than those treated unjustly. It sickens and weakens us all.
Woe unto any of us who emerge from this public health crisis unchanged. Woe unto any of us who emerge from yet another racial crisis unchanged. Woe unto any of us who yawn in self-assurance knowing we are not racists, but who refrain from actively combatting racism. Woe unto any of us who fails to prove the worthiness of our having been created and who takes our lives, and our privilege for granted.
“The historical record — for tolerance, for human learning — is not promising. Yet I believe, more than ever, that at the bottom of each human being there is a reset button. Undeniably it is difficult to get to. To reach it seems to require that the ego be demolished by circumstance. But reach that button and press it, and the world might reshape itself.“ Tony Hoagland.
Now is the time to reset. Our country is crying out for real change. Our country is crying out for us. Are we listening?
Rabbi Adina Lewittes
Log on and learn about some of the important work being done. Find your way to be part of the change.
Check out the latest article by Rabbi Adina Lewittes featured in Tablet Magazine!